Hewitt News

Redesigning Learning: Preparing Students to Address Complex and Systemic Real-World Challenges 
Maureen Burgess, Assistant Head of School for Learning and Innovation

In this installment of our Forging Hewitt’s Future series, Assistant Head of School for Learning and Innovation Dr. Maureen Burgess writes about how Hewitt’s approach to teaching and learning helps prepare students to understand and address complex, interconnected real-world challenges. To read the other articles in this series, please visit Redesigning Learning: Valuing and Acting on Feedback and Redesigning Learning: Delivering Effective Feedback

This article includes several terms that may be new to some readers. Please scroll to the bottom of the page for a lexicon providing more information about the language of teaching and learning at Hewitt.

At Hewitt, our mission—to inspire girls and young women to become game changers and ethical leaders who forge an equitable, sustainable, and joyous future—informs our commitment to designing learning experiences that reflect the complexity of the world in which we live. Take, for example, a real-world problem such as the impact of climate change on the borough of Manhattan. To fully understand this issue, students need a foundation in chemistry and physics; they also need the skills necessary to investigate urban planning decisions—past, present, and future—and the evolving economic landscape of one of the most densely populated islands in the world. And in order to create solutions to the specific challenges posed by climate change to an island that is 2.3 miles at its widest, they need to be able to first ask the right questions—ones that lead to meaningful learning—and then distill information in order to discern the appropriate next steps to ensure a sustainable future for this diverse urban community. 

Combating climate change is a transdisciplinary, real-world problem, a challenge that requires thinking that transcends the boundaries of traditional academic subjects, such as chemistry or history, in order to integrate multiple disciplines into a coherent whole. Consider the teams of professionals involved in seeking effective solutions to rising temperatures and sea levels, reduced air quality, and faulty waste management. These teams are created across the spectrum of work environments, including government agencies, non-profit advocacy organizations, universities, start-up ventures, and long-established corporations. Some individual team members are highly specialized experts in a specific area, yet all of these team members must be able to work collaboratively as part of a complex whole, and they must consider the far-reaching implications of any one decision or intervention on that larger whole. Many other team members represent training and experience in fields that are integrations of various disciplines such as environmental engineering, landscape architecture, and public policy. Together, these team members bring a range of intersecting skills and approaches to bear on a complex problem. 

Hewitt’s faculty, guided by our learning experience design team, are developing experiences that prepare students to be ethical leaders who are able to work effectively with others in addressing such complex and systemic real-world challenges. This is a process that itself requires a transdisciplinary understanding of teaching and learning, one that is not frequently found at the heart of K-12 schools, but is thriving at Hewitt. The path to such learning often begins with interdisciplinary connections between two or three subjects. In third grade, for example, our teachers integrate science, history, and language arts skills into an ongoing study of the Hudson River. As students learn about the uses, history, and geography of the Hudson and investigate human impact upon the river, they begin to develop habits of mind that lead to flexible thinking and an ability to make connections between social studies and science, while meeting learning goals in both subject areas. As Hewitt students enter middle school, they are engaging in interdisciplinary learning experiences, such as a collaboration between sixth grade science and English classes to explore the intersection of food production industries and environmental sustainability. In English class, students joined one of three non-fiction book groups and worked intensively to develop non-fiction reading, research, note-taking, and argumentation skills. In science, the same book groups formed research teams focused on understanding the science behind climate change through investigations into industrial farming, industrial meat production, and the harmful impact of global warming on ocean ecosystems.

This intentional mission-aligned planning in lower and middle school is preparing our learners to thrive in Hewitt’s high school, which is itself progressing toward transdisciplinary teaching and learning in various ways. We have begun offering new upper school courses that provide a deep-dive into transdisciplinary “wicked problems” like climate change, pandemic response efforts, and social infrastructure. In an exciting new eleventh and twelfth grade history course, A Global History of Disasters, students read Dr. Eric Klinenberg’s work on social infrastructure to learn about the role physical places like parks and public libraries play in encouraging connections and relationship building among different people. After being inspired by his work, our students spoke with Dr. Klinenberg over Zoom to discuss the implications of his research for urban design and disaster preparedness right here in New York City. As a capstone project, each student then conducted first-hand research on their own New York City neighborhood to develop online maps, which they submitted to New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio, showing the inventory of social infrastructure and specific, research-backed recommendations to improve the quality of that infrastructure. In this project, students were able to see precisely how understanding the intersection of social services such as healthcare, education, and transportation is critical to addressing the real-world challenge of helping New York City come back from the pandemic healthier, stronger, and more resilient than before. 

In these courses, students are learning how to approach real-world problems that are at once local and global and whose solutions require them to integrate knowledge from several different disciplines. Additionally, our students have collaborated across leadership organizations and clubs to advocate, both at Hewitt and beyond, for equitable solutions that work to break down the knot of systemic oppression. Through these opportunities for transdisciplinary learning, Hewitt is laying the foundation for a K-12 program that prepares students to recognize the complexity of the world around them and work confidently and collaboratively to effect positive change.

Lexicon for Teaching and Learning at Hewitt

Transdisciplinary learning (adapted from What is ‘transdisciplinary’? by Jaya Ramchandani): A new discipline transcending the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines (subjects). While interdisciplinary collaborations create new knowledge by connecting two disciplines as separate entities, a transdisciplinary approach integrates multiple disciplines into a coherent whole. Transdisciplinary learning involves students as equal participants in the process to reach a common goal — usually a solution to a real-world problem.

Learning Experience Design (LED) Team: A team of Hewitt faculty members who help develop cross-disciplinary and disciplinary standards in grades K-12, facilitate our professional learning community, and support other faculty in their innovative curriculum design.